Rely on the numbers? Respected Napa consultant thinks it’s vital for wineries to survive

After The Grapes Are Gone by David Keller – Wine And Water Watch

After the grapes are gone By DAVID KELLER. Our succession of boom crops in Sonoma County provides an interesting history — and a cautionary tale. The county’s world-class wine grapes occupy more than 60,000 acres, with vineyard acreage expanding 80 percent between 1988 and 2014.

But, what will remain of our natural resources when markets and production shift? What will become of future generations’ inheritance of our region’s rich soils, water, forests, wildlife and fisheries?

As the past predicts the future, previously dominant crops over the past 160-plus years have been replaced with the next crops of gold. Early on, potatoes were large crops, now gone. Potato blight and erosion of coastal sandy loam soils helped destroy that crop’s viability by 1900, while adding huge sediment loads to coastal creeks and lagoons, damaging salmon and steelhead habitat.

Rely on the numbers? Respected Napa consultant thinks it’s vital for wineries to survive

Like baseball, the wine industry typically has been a hidebound business and a stickler for its tradition and history.

A winemaker can seize on a certain vineyard with a subjective view of the perfect cab, just like a scout who finds a promising pitching prospect with a nasty slider at a rural ballpark that he or she thinks can help the team win the World Series. Change, however, does not come easy — on the baseball diamond or in the wine tasting room.

But Paul Mabray wants to shake up the wine sector by using data and technology to drive decisions on the best way for vintners to reach customers. And just like Billy Beane in “Moneyball” guiding the Oakland A’s to the playoffs, Mabray thinks relying on the numbers will be the only way many wineries will be able to survive in an increasingly crowded marketplace. In 2018, U.S. wine sales slowed to 1.2 percent growth, and some predict the more than 20-year streak of sales increases could end this year.

“Paul is one of the true thought leaders in the wine industry. For the past 15 years, he has pushed wineries to better understand and market to consumers through digital tools,” said Christopher O’Gorman, director of communications at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg.

Coastal “clearing” for more vineyards. With wine grape glut is this necessary?

Such insight is needed more than ever. There’s an old adage in the wine industry: “It’s not hard to make wine; it’s hard to sell wine.” And it’s only getting harder.

“We’re kind of in an existential crisis,” said Mabray, CEO of Emetry, a Napa- based consulting group that provides data analysis and research software to wineries to help them better target their customers and attract new ones. His clients include Duckhorn Vineyards of St. Helena, JaM Cellars of Napa and Treasury Wine Estates’ domestic office in Napa.

There are those who think new wine styles or production methods can help boost the industry’s fortunes, although per-capita wine consumption is flat and younger consumers have a wide array of drink options: craft beer, spirits and nonalcoholic and even cannabis-infused beverages. Mabray is not one of them.

“There are a lot of people who are wine purists who are looking for flavors — things like winemaking styles, natural wine or biodynamic. I don’t think flavors are solutions to the problem. I think they are small Band-Aids,” he said.

In Mabray’s view, wineries do not truly understand their customers even with the retail and restaurant sales data they can get from market research firms like Nielsen and buying trends they can glean from trade organizations. On a scale of 1 to 10, Mabray gives the wine sector a 1 for its digital insights.

“(Producers of) potato chips have better digital programs than we have,” he said. “For all my life, the wine industry has been guessing.”

Even though he has skeptics, Mabray has his fans.

“He is like 20 years ahead of where the wine sector needs to be,” said Damien Wilson, the Hamel Family faculty chairman in wine business at Sonoma State University.

Mabray joined Emetry in May and is enhancing its software program that uses a range of digital sources — from one wine app that allows users to snap a photo and receive ratings and descriptions of the bottle to others that track sales at fine restaurants — that will allow wineries to better understand and target their customers. Many wineries that he meets with particularly want more information on consumer insights, restaurant sales and data on direct internet sales to consumers.

“There are so many wineries that don’t know their customers,” he said. Only a few like Treasury and E. & J. Gallo Winery have the resources to have their own consumer insight groups, he said.

The problem he is trying to solve for winemakers? “How do we engage with customers to sustain that interest in our product — (one) that is very hard to understand?”

And just like Beane ditching RBIs for slugging percentage to measure a player’s value, that pursuit has led Mabray to one of his most controversial beliefs in the wine industry: The tasting room will not be the salvation in a marketplace where wholesaler and retailer consolidation has made it difficult to get store shelf space for wine.

Tasting room visits down

In Napa and Sonoma counties, wineries still view tasting rooms as the best way to draw customers. Local residents, though, have complained about the traffic that comes with them. Direct-to-consumer wine sales now make up 61 percent of an average family winery’s revenue, according to a January survey by Silicon Valley Bank, which has a winery division.

But for every popular place such as the Scribe Winery in Sonoma or the new Prisoner Wine Co. in St. Helena, others are scrambling to get people inside, he said.

“The new tasting room model is unsustainable,” Mabray said. “It’s an unsustainable tool for a small winery.”

And the data backs it up. The Silicon Valley Bank survey found that monthly tasting room visits have decreased over the past five years in both Napa and Sonoma counties, compared with other wine regions. Younger wine drinkers are not spending as much time as their parents in the tasting rooms, said Rob McMillan, the bank’s executive vice president.

Rethinking outreach

In an era of digital successes such as Warby Parker and the Dollar Shave Club, wineries must rethink their outreach, Mabray said.

“It is the most limiting bottleneck of customer acquisition,” Mabray said of wine tasting room sales. “Getting someone to fly in, to come here and come to the tasting room. It is the most limiting model. You don’t drive to Detroit to buy a Ford and test it out.”